One-way ticket to Mars?
'No return' flights to Mars are many times cheaper – and volunteers are lining up.
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A fundamental debate over what is exploration lies beneath the discussion of human missions to Mars, Robinson says. Already, unmanned Mars rovers called Spirit and Opportunity have done amazing things. Another called Curiosity is set to land in 2012. "They're getting piles of data, really great data" for scientific study, Robinson says.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet for some in the space community, "robots don't really count" as true exploration, he says.
Exploration of Mars will require "very subtle forms of perception and on-the-spot intuition," argues Robert Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society, in another article in the Journal of Cosmology. "All of these skills are far beyond the abilities of robotic rovers.... Drilling to reach subsurface hydrothermal environments where extant Martian life may yet thrive will clearly require human explorers as well.
"Put simply," he says, "as far as the question of Martian life is concerned, if we don't go, we won't know."
Dr. Zubrin has set out his own plan to send humans to Mars – and return them. But he has no problem with a one-way expedition. "Life is a one-way trip," Zubrin says. "If you don't go to Mars, you're going to die on Earth. You're going to die somewhere."
He sees a one-way ticket to Mars as a Plymouth Colony scenario, in which more and more 17th-century English settlers slowly joined the original colonists in Massachusetts Bay.
Or, perhaps colonizing Mars is more akin to hitting the beach at Normandy, Zubrin says, referring to the invasion of Europe in World War II. The rationale would be "no matter what it takes, we'll take the beach," he says. "We may well run into problems, but we'll send more of everything. We're prepared to send more machines, more people, more supplies until the beach is taken."
But will the US and other nations offer that level of commitment? Is talk of scientific advances, national pride, or the need to someday abandon Earth enough to justify backing a colony on Mars in the near future?
Once humans arrive on Mars, support for them would have to continue uninterrupted for decades to come, despite changing economic or political conditions back on Earth.
A Mars colony could end up being like "your annoying crazy cousin in the basement" that you have to take care of, says Penelope Boston, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, N.M., who for many years has studied the problems of supporting human life on Mars.
The practical issues of sustaining a long-term human colony on Mars are substantial. Just protecting the colonists from the much higher levels of radiation on the Martian surface would seem to be "a real showstopper," she says. (Schulze-Makuch and Davies argue that naturally occurring lava tube caves could provide ready-built shelters from radiation.)
All in all, "it's a stupefying task," Dr. Boston says. A Mars colony "is more likely to founder on human psychology and behavior and political considerations than any technical consideration."
If we're expecting the US, or even a coalition of countries to fund the colony, she asks, "What is the return? Why would they?"
Perhaps new options will present themselves. Robinson imagines a kind of "virtual" space exploration, where instruments send back data so complete and realistic that earthbound humans feel almost as though they've visited the Red Planet themselves.
But for some, nothing will replace making their own boot tracks in the Martian dust.
"I still have small kids I would like to see grow up, but otherwise, yes, I would go" on a one-way expedition to Mars, Schulze-Makuch says.
"I would be one of the first people on another planet and would experience seeing those canyons, those huge mountains. That would be just thrilling.... There would be so many things on the positive side for me as a scientist. It would be incredible."